I came up with the User Manual the hard way: after an idiotic dispute with a girlfriend over when to watch a movie.

The movie, for the record, was Whiplash, the best movie I saw that year. If we’re looking for metaphors here–and I always am–then maybe JK Dineen is my now ex (demanding, has loads from the past to work out), I’m the drummer (trying my best, but simply incapable of being the greatest in history today), and the drums are my heart (blood-splattered and bruised). Or maybe I’m JK Dineen (been through the wringer, wants to do better), my ex is the drummer (playing whatever she thinks I wanted to hear), and the drums are the relationship (makes beautiful music until they’re beaten to the point of rupture). But most likely, it’s just a movie, and these metaphors are imaginary structures I invented to make me feel like the universe is purposeful.out

Back to the story: Six hours later, that idiotic dispute over when to watch Whiplash had imploded our year-and-a-half-long relationship.

I hope most people reading this can’t really remember how those sudden, catastrophic breakups go, because it turned into one of the worst psychic flayings of my life.

Time didn’t stop, but it definitely blurred. I went for a long, angry walk, working myself into a strolling-speed lather that nobody stops to lament the broken-hearted anymore, that in modern society we assume that independent people can withstand a crushing blow to their psyche all on their own, that most of my friends were married and had forgotten how big breakups implode your soul and degrade your brain into a useless hunk of meat so you operate at a fraction of your standard power.

It amounted to one of the biggest self-pity parties I’ve ever thrown, and everyone was invited.

Once I got home and faced the gaping emptiness of an awesome movie to watch with nobody to join me, I made a round of calls to vent and feel a little less isolated. My brother listened patiently, offered warm words. My next-door neighbor acceded to my demands to go out to dinner. But it was my friend Sandro—a recovering divorce lawyer, who’s been divorced himself and is now launching an e-divorce website to help married couples split up with less agony—who gave me the advice that changed everything.

“You’re complicated,” he told me. “You come off as a capable, independent guy who has it all together, but underneath that armor you’re sensitive. I’m sure women find it very confusing.”

“Good point,” I murmured, my mind spinning through 75 stations of confusion and misery but still vaguely recognizing that he was onto something. I was 35, a vice president at a company, a homeowner, and in pretty good physical shape. Rarely lacking in confidence publicly, I appeared physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially strong. But I also wrote literary fiction, read poetry in my free time, cared for a geriatric dog, and was still on the comeback trail after a failed marriage that had inverted my life. Parts of me were far more delicate than a thoughtful observer could be expected to know.

“You can’t expect the next one to figure that out on her own,” he continued. “You need to give her a user manual.”

Bingo.

Even through the collapsed rafters of my mind, I knew Sandro’s point was golden, a missing weapon in my quest for relationship happiness.

It’s taken me a couple of years since then, but I’m finally figuring out how that User Manual works.

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